This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
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So as is well documented Animal Crossing New Horizons came out the same day as Doom Eternal, cue lots of Photoshops of THE DOOM SLAYER chasing Lost Souls with a butterfly net, lollety lol, memety meme, but the two are a weirdly good pairing. What better way to unwind from a high tension gameplay experience than with something cheerful, relaxing and colourful like Doom Eternal yeah you figured out where this joke was going half a sentence ago I’m sure. Now that Nintendo have got this whole console thing down a version of Animal Crossing for the Switch was inevitable.
Animal Crossing is an institution at this point, one that requires commitment, and as such I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who thinks they’re ready to be committed to an institution. The setup this time around is that you and the predatory raccoon loan shark Tom Nook have come to a desert island wilderness in order to develop it into yet another wholesome capitalist paradise for animal-shaped random number generators. You know, the kind of setup where, if it were a film, you’d expect half the cast to be cannibalised by the end of act two, but don’t worry, Tom Nook presumably massacred the native island population before we arrived. The process of developing the island largely entails for your part the transfer of ungodly amounts of Bells from you to Tom Nook’s holdings account, and the usual Animal Crossing routine quickly sets in.
You fish, you catch bugs, you acquire furniture, you sell it all to Tom Nook for money that you then use to pay off your loans to Tom Nook. It’s the all-Tom Nook economy. When Tom Nook dies, this entire society will fucking collapse into anarchy where brightly coloured animal people shiv each other for pears. And as always you’re expected to come back every day in real time to pull the weeds, dig up a new set of fossils and defuse any shiv-based arguments. Very little that I didn’t already comment on the last time my path was crossing with Animal… game. With the animal game.
But I managed to gain a new perspective on Animal Tossing this time around by introducing my wife to it. Now, be warned before you show your significant other or cohabitant Animal Crossing that it’s a risky play. On the one hand, they won’t yell at you to stop playing video games for a while, but on the other, the house will rot and the children will starve. I’m ashamed to admit that I knew Animal Crossing would suck her in because she’s one of those 100% completion types who have always ensured that Pokemon makes bank like a 7-11 across the road from a marijuana shop.
So on day 1 she was saying she probably wouldn’t be into it and by day 5 she was staying up fishing long into the night ‘cos she had to catch just one fucking sturgeon before the end of March. And by day 8 she was digging holes in a series of arcane patterns in the hope of summoning a tarantula to catch and I began to worry that she might have joined a cargo cult. But I was gathering all kinds of interesting data on the communal experience of Animal Crossing. For example, kids, the first of your siblings who gets to play Animal Crossing New Horizons is officially the one your parents love the most.
The first player gets a fun little sequence where they camp out with Tom Nook and get gently tutorialised and get to name the island and pick where all the characters’ houses go so they can start a beaver ghetto if they feel so inclined, and the next player to join on the same Switch gets “Oh, hello, you’re here too. Here are some old twigs we found, try not to get them dirty. What’s that? You’d like to have your own island to play with? Well, you see that dung beetle over there? You see how he’s eating shit? I think you could learn a lot from his example.”
There’s this whole new system of etiquette one must adhere to when other people in the household are playing Animal Crossing. Is the first person to log on that day duty bound to dig up all the fossils? If my cohabitee sends me a hat they designed, is a token thank you reply enough or am I obliged to wear the awful fucking thing? If they spent hours grinding fish bait trying to catch a blue Marlin and I catch one entirely by chance on my first go, how many is an inappropriate number of pelvic thrusts to do in their stupid crying face? And so on. As for how New Horizons compares to previous incarnations, there’s a greater sense in this one that the environment is growing and developing as time goes on.
At first it’s all tents and temporary housing, no shop, no museum and most of it’s locked behind impassable rivers and cliffs, but with time, several large payments to Tom Nook and enough inevitable fucking crafting to soak up more PVA glue than any unsupervised schoolchild could consume in a lifetime you gradually turn this mysterious exotic wilderness into yet another Animal Crossing consumerist hellhole identical to the last one. Tom Nook is the living embodiment of the gray goo scenario. You could call the development of the island the game’s story campaign if you want, much as that would be like putting a dead dog on a swing and calling it an adventure playground.
But that might be missing the point, because the point of Animal Crossing is that there is no point. Oh, there’re plenty of overt challenges you can distract yourself with – get all of the fish, get all of the furniture, make all the animal people dress up in Swastika patterned jumpers – but all that matters is that you ARE distracted. Now, obviously Nintendo didn’t know a pandemic and global lockdown was going to happen, and I’m certainly not saying they orchestrated it alongside a shadowy cabal of global corporations to reaffirm their grip on power – to reiterate I am NOT saying that, Nintendo, you can stop sending the frighteners round, now – but Animal Crossing couldn’t have come out at a better time, because it offers something that is sorely needed – stability.
Keep hold of your Nintendo Switch through every water war and bandit raid in the coming years and you will always have a little place that will never change, where the grass is always green and the peaches always look like tiny pairs of perfect buttocks. And where the owl at the museum always says the exact same nineteen fucking lines of dialogue when I just want him to assess some fucking fossils and shut his fucking face.
But do you like Animal Crossing New Horizons, Yahtzee? See, that’s the wrong question. Of course I don’t. But I still play it. It’s full of little annoyances I could nitpick about, but I strongly suspect it’s the flaws that make it absorbing. Of course smacking rocks doesn’t just drop crafting resources, it has to parcel them out based on how many times you can smack it in ten seconds so you feel motivated to try and beat that record. Of course we can’t skip the interminably repetitive dialogue and fish puns, because our eventual payout from the morning’s fishing will be all the sweeter for having put in the slog.
Of course the owl always says the same fucking thing, because if they said something different for once we’d all be struck with terror at the sudden injection of chaos into our ordered little world, the way a suburban community reacts when a black person moves in. And annoying as it is that there’s only so much you can do until you have to wait another day, it’s well documented that that’s how these games turn into habits. If you set out to masturbate once a day, within about two weeks you’re not even doing it because you want to anymore. You’re all like “Well, what can I do? Hands tied! It’s wank o’clock.”